EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The school committee voted 5-0 during a special meeting on Wednesday to close Opal P. Myrick School in anticipation of the sale or shutdown of the Main Street paper mill by April 22.
The 5-0 vote occurred because even if the mill is sold to Meriturn Partners, and the mill’s approximately 450 jobs are preserved, the reduction Meriturn seeks in the mill’s valuation would mean a massive cut in town and school funding, officials said.
“I don’t think anybody wants to close the school,” board Chairman Robert Leathers said after the meeting.
The property tax deal is not complete and both sides have declined to discuss details of a counteroffer East Millinocket and Millinocket officials made last week. However, estimates on Meriturn’s initial proposal to East Millinocket, of a $22 million tax break over 10 years, would have caused a cut in school funding of about $1 million starting July 1, officials have said.
Meriturn signed a letter of intent to purchase the paper mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket from Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto by April 29 provided several conditions were met.
Brookfield has said that if the deal collapses it would close the East Millinocket mill on April 22.
Restarting the Millinocket mill, which closed in 2008, would create about 200 jobs.
State programs that aid municipalities that suffer sudden and drastic losses in revenue would cushion the impact of Meriturn’s tax break somewhat, but not enough to make preserving the building feasible, Superintendent Quenten Clark said.
Clark estimated that the closure would save $100,000 in operational costs alone. He listed several problems with the building that make it costly to run or renovate, including asbestos floor tiles, a lack of disability access, and an aging heating system that consumed about 16,000 gallons of heating oil.
“It was built in 1927,” Clark said of the building. “To bring Opal up to 2011 standards would cost a lot of money.”
Closing the school, Clark said, likely would preserve teaching positions and programs while addressing the enrollment decline that has almost halved the student population over the last 10 years.
Under his proposal, Myrick would close by Sept. 1 and its kindergarten to fourth-grade pupils would attend Schenck High School, which would be remodeled to accommodate the Myrick pupils. Medway Middle School would continue to accept pupils in grades five to eight. The remodeling would reduce but not eliminate the commingling of the Schenck and Myrick students, he said.
Clark mentioned the possibility of closing Myrick during a special town meeting on the Meriturn deal on March 7, and said the closure had been discussed for several years, but what they called the quickness of the school board’s decision to close the school surprised some parents and educators.
Board members who met on March 15 called Wednesday’s special meeting and a meeting on March 22 that drew about 80 people, Leathers and Clark said.
Parent Angel Danforth thought the school board had made a great decision in combining schools. Danforth said that high schoolers would learn “a new level of responsibility and respect” by attending school with the younger children.
Another parent, who asked not to be identified, said she had a special-needs child whom she would be forced to home-school next year because of Clark’s plan. Her child, she said, would be subject to a lot of teasing and other unwanted attention if she attends the combined school.
Physical education teacher Kathy Lane said she received a written notice last week that she would be laid off if the school closes. She feared that the Myrick closing would be just the beginning of some drastic layoffs of school staff and cuts in athletic and arts programs.
“There are a certain group of children that we would lose very quickly if we don’t have these programs,” Lane said.
Leathers referred comment on teacher layoffs to Clark, who left immediately after the meeting and did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.